Our House is on Fire
On the last day of Summer, when Nicola Sturgeon, had finished very eloquently and openly and honestly recommending to the chamber of the Scottish Parliament the proposal for an agreement, a political coalition, between the SNP and the Greens, all Douglas Ross, the leaders of the Tories in Scotland, could do was sneer. It was then I knew our house was on fire.
Douglas Ross is the cruel, comic messenger from the decaying twilight. He is comic because each time he speaks he unwittingly and clownishly reveals his own political meaninglessness. It was the playwright Eugène Ionesco who remarked that, “There is only a thin line between the horrible and the comic.” The true genius of comedy is that it opens up some unknown human realm. Tragedy, on the other hand, offers us the beautiful and consoling dream of human greatness. It is an illusion, but that is the nature of tragedy. Comedy is about what is unknown, about what is yet to happen. Tragedy is about history. Comedy is tragedies cruel opposite. The unknown realm Douglas Ross brings us into has no human virtue, only neglect and deceit. It is a dimension where the Scottish people are expected to collaborate with all that they instinctively and historically know to be vile. Douglas Ross brings his cruel comic sneer into the arena of both contemporary politics and history. He expects us to file into this arena and to dig our own graves by voting for him. And currently a significant amount of Scots do just that. And oh how we laugh!
The deal passed in the Scottish Parliament is the beginning of a quest to make clear some definitions and to lead the country away from constitutional meaninglessness, cruel political comedy and out of the deliberately constructed tragic dead end of devolution. This new, unknown realm may yet prove comic or tragic. Time will tell because history does not invent, it discovers. History reveals what humanity is, not what we suppose we are. Nicola Sturgeon was right to call the arrangement with the Greens “a leap of faith”, because up to last Tuesday the current direction of travel was taking us exactly no-where. It was as if we were all on “The Barque of Dante”, the painting by Delacroix, which depicts Dante and Virgil crossing the river Styx to the Land of the Dead. Behind them is the red glow of the burning City of the Dead. Beneath their vessel the choppy water is heaving with the bodies of tormented souls bound for Hell. The political Hell for the Scots is a place where we are mere functionaries of the British state. In this Hell we are denied initiative. We are forbidden invention. There is no real freedom of action. There are only rules we did not agree to and orders that we must obey and which will harm us. It is the Hell of obedience. This is “The Barque of Bojo”. On board are the British Prime Minister and his sneering man in the Scottish Parliament. The waters beneath this particular vessel heave from the conflicting tides of the Scots as obedient functionaries who must obey the instructions handed down from above and the self-ruling entitlement junkies of the English Tory elite who are exempt from all rules. In Canto Eight of Dante’s Inferno, Dante and Virgil successfully make it across the River Styx and eventually emerge from the Land of the Dead. Who would put money on a similar outcome for “The Barque of Bojo” with such a crew?
In the first week of August this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a grim report which stated that the fires, floods and extreme weather seen around the world in recent months are just a foretaste of what can be expected if global heating takes hold. For example,
– atmospheric CO2 is up one third on the levels recorded in the 1960’s.
– The past six years have been the hottest on record.
– In 2020 the world’s oceans were the hottest ever recorded.
– Scotland has had its fourth hottest summer on record, according to provisional figures released by the Met Office just this week.
Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London, said,
“The observations this summer show that some impacts seem to be underestimated, but we can’t know if the devastation of summer 2021 is the new normal without a few more years’ data. But what we do know is if emissions continue to rise, then increasingly severe climate impacts will occur and the consequences will be severe. What we need to keep in mind is that we all live in places that have built up over decades and centuries to cope well with a given climate. The really, really scary thing about the climate crisis is that every single achievement of every human society on Earth occurred under a climate that no longer exists. The pressure is on for world leaders to agree both detailed and achievable plans to cut emissions now, and plans to adapt to climate impacts, when they meet in Glasgow in November.”
Concurrent with this the British government will push through the development of the Campbell (Cambo) oil field, 75 miles north-west of Shetland, which is estimated to contain 800 million barrels of oil. Our house is on fire and the solution is to turn up the heating. The First Minister of Scotland can plead with the Prime Minister of the UK not to go ahead with this development but energy is a reserved matter and she has absolutely no power to stop it. This is the Hell of devolution. This is its tragic dead end.
For all its infernal imagery and cosmic energy Dante’s three part “Divine Comedy” is in truth a trip around his own contemporary early 14th century Tuscany. The first part, “Inferno”, is jam packed with characters – popes, bishops, cardinals, dukes, merchants, printers etc – who have done him wrong. One of the poems themes is that power does indeed corrupt and one of the many ways it does this is through hypnotism. Dante, the poet, serves the truth that is discovered. He discovered this truth through observation. He refused to be hypnotised by power. He saw it clearly for what it was: brutality and cruelty – the stuff of comedy. Dante’s conclusion was that his house, like ours, was also on fire. His attempt (his contribution) to deal with the crisis was his great masterpiece, which he wrote in exile from Florence, where he was caught up in civil war in 1301.
Recently, here on Bella, Graham Ennis commented,
“In this situation, independence for Scotland is no longer a political issue, but an issue of Survival.”
In this light of Survival the SNP’s deal with the Greens and the ever expanding corruption of Westminster, the rapidly deteriorating environmental situation, the inability of capitalism to change its ways, the abdication of Culture to take any responsibility to engage with any issue other than psychology or sex, where who is going to be the next James Bond is seen by the media as more important than rising sea levels, the question I pose is: As the world begins to burn from greed and blindness, where is out modern Dante?
All writers, including Dante, borrow from their own lives. How can literature be produced in any other way? It has been said that literature has to be an ethical activity, inseparable from questions of moral value. But no single life can stand that much scrutiny. That is a price too terrible to contemplate. I am the last person to declare whether my life has any moral value whatsoever. So I make it easy for myself and take consolation in the realisation that what all writers do is to send out messages to ourselves. However, we are terrified that none of it is real. Just stories we tell to the person we think we are. In these stories it is always night and we are always alone and are, like Dante, in exile. All writers are alone and in exile no matter what else they think. That is our tragedy. Ironically we crave neither loneliness or solitude yet, as our house burns down, we are terrified of both. Doesn’t that make you laugh? What modern capitalism does is that it violates solitude and turns it into loneliness. The Covid pandemic has exacerbated this loneliness. And the polar ice still melts. The forests still burn.
The solace for the artist is that life is work. Work is everything. We work ourselves up into such a froth that, like our communal house which is the planet, we start to smoke and then burst into flames. This is the risk and the cost. And there is a cost to everything, especially creativity, polar ice and rain forests. When the damage is done it cannot be undone. Unlike the planet the human heart does not repair itself. The great joke is that the flames of the ever rising world temperature will consume everything. Even Douglas Ross and his Tories. On the other hand the Roman writer Seneca, in his “Letters To Lucillius”, informs us that, “You will not die because you are sick but because you are alive.”
Seneca was a Stoic, so he was obsessed by the human condition. He saw life as a journey to ethical perfection and in being emotionally resilient to misfortune, even his own enforced suicide in 65AD. The Roman Empire, as witnessed by Seneca, may have begun to fall apart due to the actions of the then emperor Nero, but it’s house was not, as yet, on fire. It did eventually burn to the ground. The difference between Seneca’s time and now is that our house, the planet Earth, is most definitely on fire. A charred planet is history as the human confession of just what have become. If we do not change our ways we will be swept away in the flood and turned to dust in the drought. Most of us by then will be so poor and isolated we will lack everything. The rich and the greedy, who started the fire, will also lack everything. That’s comedy. Will the master clown, Douglas Ross, laugh at that in his horrible, comic way from the decaying twilight? Or will he just sneer, as usual?
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